The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 17, 2013

Commissioners grilled in court over attorney pay

Ruling to come this summer

By Mark Fischenich

MANKATO — A pair of Mankatoans, unhappy with their pay, had the opportunity Friday to place their bosses under oath and grill them about how and why they made the salary decisions they made.

While it might be a dream scenario for employees everywhere who feel underpaid or underappreciated, the salary appeal by assistant Blue Earth County prosecutors before a district court judge didn’t bring any immediate results.

Judge Robert Walker, a Martin County district court judge who’s hearing the case because Blue Earth County judges would have a conflict of interest, won’t issue a ruling in the case until sometime this summer.

The budget appeal, officially titled “Ross Arneson v. Blue Earth County Board of Commissioners,” involves six of Arneson’s assistants who the longtime county attorney argues have been grossly underpaid compared to some of the public defenders they face in court and compared to assistant county attorneys in similar Minnesota counties.

“All we’re asking is that they follow the law,” said Chris Rovney, the assistant county attorney who handled the questioning of County Administrator Bob Meyer Friday.

Meyer and all five commissioners, issued subpoenas by county deputies, were forced to take the stand during the evidentiary hearing. The budget appeal process is allowed under a relatively rarely used section of Minnesota law that allows elected county officers — such as county attorneys and sheriffs — to take their county board to court if they think they’ve been treated unfairly by the board-approved budget.

Meyer and the commissioners mostly testified that they handled the salaries for the assistant county attorneys in a similar way as the other 400 or so county workers. Workers are placed in job classifications by consulting firm Fox Lawson and Associates based on job descriptions that detail the duties, responsibilities, decision-making authority and work conditions of a particular job. Each classification carries a specific wage range, and the system meets pay-equity requirements under state law.

The assistant county attorneys have long been placed by Fox Lawson at the C52 classification, identical to the jail supervisor, captains in the sheriff’s department and certain supervisors in the human services department. That’s left veteran assistant county attorneys making as much as $25,000 less than public defenders with similar experience and less than assistant prosecutors similar-sized Minnesota counties, according to documents provided by Arneson, who didn’t attend Friday’s hearing.

County boards in Clay and Crow Wing counties violated state law by arbitrarily and unreasonably paying assistant county attorneys less than comparable counties and by failing to specifically examine the experience, qualifications and performance of the attorneys, according to Minnesota Court of Appeals decisions Arneson provided to the board in 2011 and 2012.

Meyer and board members were repeatedly asked Friday if they considered the qualifications, experience and performance of the six assistant county attorneys. Most responded by saying they rely on their consultant’s classification system, and they didn’t recall any conversations about the specific qualities of individual attorneys or their performance.

The commissioners also were asked by Assistant County Attorney Susan DeVos whether the case law presented to them by Arneson, which hinted that extra diligence is required of county boards when setting attorney salaries, factored into the board’s budget decision.

“I would say probably not,” said Commissioner Will Purvis, a retired sheriff’s deputy and investigator. “I was quite comfortable with the process in place. ... I had been involved in the process as an employee and I thought the process worked quite well.”

Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said he believes a board member’s function in employee salaries largely rests with deciding if overall payroll increases are at an appropriate level. Asked by DeVos if his role was essentially to deal with pay increases recommended by others — either the county’s union negotiating team or county management.

“That’s correct,” Stuehrenberg said.

Commissioners Mark Piepho and Kip Bruender, on the management negotiating team with unions, said they delved into the duties and responsibilities of the assistant county attorneys during negotiations with the attorneys’ union.

And Scott Lepak, the Minneapolis attorney hired by the board, questioned Purvis and Stuehrenberg, a retired Mankato police officer, about their professional interaction with the assistant county attorneys during their law enforcement careers — an apparent effort to show that they understood the duties and skills of the attorneys.

Rovney and DeVos also asked questions about the county’s decision to compare assistant county attorney salaries here with those paid in the Region Nine counties immediately surrounding Blue Earth County. All are smaller, most substantially smaller, in population than Blue Earth County.

Only Commissioner Drew Campbell said he independently researched the pay in other counties, partly because several Region Nine counties either don’t have assistant county attorneys or only part-timers.

“I just thought it might not be as beneficial to look at those,” Campbell said.

Campbell said he ultimately decided that the Blue Earth County salaries appeared similar to others he looked at, specifically mentioning Rice County.

Rovney also asked Meyer how his salary and the salaries of other top administrators in the county compared to counterparts in Region Nine.

“I believe there are differences,” Meyer said of Blue Earth County’s management salaries.

Rovney specifically asked where Blue Earth County ranked among the nine south-central Minnesota counties for county administrator, human services director, engineer, sheriff and county attorney.

“They are higher,” Meyer said.

Lepak, the board’s attorney, quizzed Meyer about the attorneys’ proposal during union negotiations to have those with about 10 years of experience moved to a D63 classification — which would have brought raises of as much as 30 percent to salaries now topping out at about $77,000. At that classification, only the top managers in the county would be paid more, Meyer said.

“There would be 10 above that level,” he said.

The arbitrator sided with the county in September, but a different section of state law is in play for the salary appeal.

 Walker instructed the attorneys to submit written arguments in June, after which he would issue a decision.